Throughout modern human history, we’ve looked to our past to try and discover our origins. This is clear from the fascination that ancient civilizations such as those of Egypt, Greece and Rome still evoke today. Now, though, genetic testing overseen by a team of researchers has finally revealed which civilization began humanity’s journey. And it’s not the group of people you might think it is.
It almost goes without saying that some ancient cultures have more of a presence in the modern world than others. Egypt’s mighty pyramids are impossible to ignore, for instance, while ancient Greek ideas still underpin everything from art to math and science. Similarly, both democracy and empire as they have been practiced in the Western world owe a lot to ancient Rome.
Such factors don’t make those civilizations humanity’s oldest, however. Other early civilizations include the people of the Indus Valley, who lived in what are now parts of India and Pakistan, and the agricultural innovators of South and Central America. Those past civilizations dated back thousands of years.
Arguably among the most likely candidates for the oldest civilization is that of Mesopotamia, which was part of the Fertile Crescent – a region curving from the geographical equivalents of modern-day Egypt to Turkey and Iran. This portion of the world is often considered the “cradle of civilization.” It’s where humans first went from being hunter-gatherers to farmers, around 9000 BCE or even earlier.
It’s also worth remembering that human civilization isn’t, of course, limited to settled communities. In fact, people were building cultures thousands of years before the first Mesopotamian farms. Yet the questions facing the recent group of researchers were where and when these civilizations began and how they spread through the world.
The researchers were an international team. They came from the University of Cambridge in England, Denmark’s University of Copenhagen, the University of Bern in Switzerland and Australia’s Griffith University. The Leverhulme Centre for Evolutionary Studies and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute also assisted with the study.
As for the researchers’ work, it started off with what we already know. The human race originated in Africa, and it then began migrating outwards around 65,000 years ago. So it was that early humans – anatomically the same as us today – journeyed into Europe and Asia, eventually reaching all corners of the world.
In Africa, the original hunter-gatherers were the S?n people. And the modern-day S?n can trace a direct lineage to those archetypal humans, who made their home in southern Africa no less than 150,000 years ago – before the great migration began. Hence, this could be called the first civilization.
Now we come to bones of contention, however. Other than Africa, there is one place that’s known to have had a human presence longer than anywhere else. It’s believed, you see, that humans have lived continuously in Australia for some 50,000 years.
The debate surrounding this matter is, though, as much political as it is scientific. Europeans didn’t settle in Australia until 1788. Furthermore, prior to 1992 Australian law claimed that before this settlement, Australia had been Terra nullius – in other words, empty land. And this in turn meant that the Europeans had been free to colonize it as they liked, regardless of the Aboriginal Australians who were already living there.
This view of the land as having been “empty” arose in part because of how poorly Europeans understood Aboriginal customs and culture. The colonists didn’t see Aboriginal society as civilized, so they tried to force its people to conform to European standards of “civilization” – frequently through violence.
Often, Europeans associated civilization with the building of farms and cities. The Aboriginal people were principally hunter-gathers, though, with a way of life that had remained unchanged for tens of thousands of years.
That said, there is evidence that Aboriginal Australians did engage in some forms of agriculture. They also had – and still have – complex social structures and spiritual beliefs. And regardless of the tools that these people did or didn’t use, they were individuals well adapted to environments that the colonists often found hostile.
There was certainly plenty of time for their culture to develop too. Recent archaeological research was conducted with the input of the Aboriginal people who have traditionally lived in the interior deserts of Western Australia. What’s more, this research supports the idea of the Aboriginals’ presence there dating back at least 50,000 years – before many other deserts on our planet had been occupied by humans.
Evidence gathered by the study team at the site includes charcoal, pigments and stone tools. The majority of the remains of animals that were found, meanwhile, are between 1,000 and 2,000 years old. However, radiocarbon dating showed that the oldest artifacts date back close to 50,000 years.
Now in addition to having utilized standard archaeological techniques, the latest study – highlighted earlier – incorporated genetic testing. Aboriginal people were, it’s also worth noting, involved in every aspect of the research, including co-writing the findings. And the genes of Aboriginal Australians had never before been investigated on such a large scale.
Eventually, the study managed to collate the gene data of more than 80 Aboriginal Australians, with the researchers also having focused on 25 Papuans. The latter individuals come from the island of New Guinea, which used to be connected to Australia as part of one great continent called Sahul. Hence, the DNA of both peoples could now be compared to different ethnic groups around the world.
What the team discovered answered some of the many questions about the migration out of Africa. Yes, most modern non-Africans are descended from one migrant group – not multiple waves of migration from the African continent. And yes, Aboriginal Australians can trace their ancestry back to the first humans to have arrived in Australia all those millennia ago – when they became isolated from the rest of the world and developed their own civilization.
Unsurprisingly, though, other questions are still to be answered. For example, as Homo sapiens traveled through Asia, they seem to have bred with another species of human – yet the identity of that species remains a mystery. And around 2000 BCE, people from northeast Australia migrated to the rest of the continent, creating linguistic and cultural links between today’s Australian Aboriginal communities before subsequently disappearing – but why?
Such questions ensure that human history and evolution remain often confusing but always fascinating areas of study. With every new discovery, new paths of investigation are opened. Who knows, then, what is likely to be revealed next?